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DOJ sues university that fired trans professor

The Justice Department has filed a lawsuit against an Oklahoma university alleging it discriminated against a transgender professor who switched her identity.
Attorney General Eric Holder speaks at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., March 4, 2015. (Photo by Carolyn Kaster/AP)
Attorney General Eric Holder speaks at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., March 4, 2015.

The Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit against an Oklahoma university alleging that officials discriminated against a transgender professor whose gender changed over the course of her professorship at the university.

"We will not allow unfair biases and unjust prejudices to prevent transgender Americans from reaching their full potential as workers and as citizens."'

According to a complaint filed by the DOJ this week, Southeastern Oklahoma State University targeted Rachel Tudor, who began as a professor at the university in 2004, for harassment and discrimination. At the time of her hire, Tudor presented as a man. But in 2007 she began presenting herself as a woman.

Despite a solid work record, Tudor was denied tenure after school officials overruled positive recommendations from her department chair and other tenured faculty in her department.

The Justice Departments lawsuit alleges that the university discriminated against her on the basis of her gender identity and “non-conformance with gender stereotypes.”

“By standing beside Dr. Tudor, the Department of Justice sends a clear message that we are committed to eliminating discrimination on the basis of sex and gender identity,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement. “We will not allow unfair biases and unjust prejudices to prevent transgender Americans from reaching their full potential as workers and as citizens. And we will continue to work tirelessly, using every legal tool available, to ensure that transgender individuals are guaranteed the rights and protections that all Americans deserve.”

RELATED: Trans-friendly policy sparks controversy

Tudor filed a complaint in 2010 after she was denied tenure, after which university officials refused to allow Tudor to reapply for promotion and tenure against the school’s own policies permitting reapplication, according to the DOJ.

At the end of the following school year, during which Tudor was awarded the Faculty Senate Recognition Award for Excellence in Scholarship, the university fired Tudor. She didn’t have the protection of tenure.

Tudor went on to file discrimination charges against the university with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. After an investigation by the EEOC, it was found that there was reasonable cause to believe that the university indeed discriminated against her. Attempts by the EEOC for conciliation between Tudor and the school were unsuccessful so the agency pushed the case up to the DOJ.

“The Department of Justice is committed to protecting the civil rights of all Americans, including transgender Americans,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta of the Civil Rights Division. “Discrimination against employees because of their gender identity, gender transition, or because they do not conform to stereotypical notions about how men and women should act or appear violates Title VII. Retaliating against an employee for complaining about unlawful discrimination, as happened in this case, is also unacceptable under Title VII.” 

Sean Burrage, who took over as president after Tudor filed her initial complaint, said in a statement that the university is “committed to diversity and equal employment opportunities.”

“We will allow the legal system to run its course, while we direct our focus and energy on our top priority, that of educating our students,’ Burrage said, according to The Washington Post.

Because of ongoing litigation, Burrage said he would not go into specifics of Tudor’s case.

According to the federal lawsuit, Jane McMillan, director of the university’s counseling center, had warned Tudor to tread carefully as she pressed on the tenure issue. Some people on campus, McMillan allegedly said, were openly hostile toward transgender people and that her brother, vice president of academic affairs, Douglas McMillan, considered trans people a “grave offense” to his religious beliefs.

The lawsuit claims that as Tudor was being denied her promotion and given no reason, a male colleague in the English Department was helped every step of the way toward a successful application for tenure.

The Justice Department’s suit comes as LGBT advocates across the country have aggressively pushed back against a slew of legislation, passed and proposed, that they say is discriminatory. Activists, special interest groups and lawmakers from various states threatened to boycott the state of Indiana after Gov. Mike Pence signed into law a religious freedom bill that activists say could allow businesses to not offer services to LGBT people under the shield of their religious beliefs.

Last year, President Barack Obama signed Executive Order 13672, which extended civil rights protections in hiring and employment to additional groups, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual identity.

Tuesday, March 31, also marks the annual International Day of Trans Visibility, dedicated to celebrating transgender people and raising awareness about issues that group faces across the world.